As a kid growing up in Southern California, I was always struck by the anomaly of Signal Hill. Perched just east of the San Diego Freeway, southwest of L.A. proper, and strewn with oil wells and derricks, it seemed so oddly out of place and disconnected, unique in fact from the rest of the city's metropolitan sprawl. Likewise, the characters that inhabit the four short stories and the novella in Alan Rifkin's slim volume are all strikingly out of place and emotionally disconnected, particularly in their relationships with family, friends, and lovers. Unfulfilled longing is the common denominator here. It takes the form of an adolescent's frustrated attempt to forge a meaningful relationship with his estranged father living in the hills of upscale Encino in "After the Divorce." "The Honor System" details an underachieving rich kid, AWOL from the family business, trying to connect with a mysterious woman in Death Valley.
It's a preadolescent boy feigning a bizarre physical condition in order to secure the comfort of an emotionally distant mother in "The Idols of Sickness." An impulsive desire to buy an unneeded SUV reacquaints an aimless middle-aged man with a former lover and her troubled son now scraping by on the dusty, downscale slopes of Signal Hill, the neighborhood and the title novella. "Her block was a roadside attraction of weekend projects, boats on blocks and vivisectioned Harley-Davidsons." The son's girlfriend only complicates a situation where none of these characters are able to meaningfully connect with one another. His new SUV, the quintessential symbol of Los Angeles' metastasized modern car culture, brings nothing but trouble. Southern California is such fertile ground for cultivating emotional disharmony, and Rifkin knows the terrain quite well. He subtly conjures the anomie of endless suburbs ("a quarry pit of towns") replete with their miles of nondescript storefronts, chaotic concrete freeways, and shiny automobile showrooms. Even the benign falling of L.A.'s ubiquitous eucalyptus leaves somehow becomes a metaphoric depiction of alienation in the promised land. Laments one character, "This suburban linearity felt not like joy but like deprivation." Indeed.